In one, or probably more, of the British Dressage Novice tests there is a diagonal change of rein in canter, with a change of lead through trot over X. Now it sounds easy, but for a long time Otis and I wobbled through the transition, and where we weren’t straight I lost his shoulder into the trot and then the upwards transition was unbalanced.
To solve this, we started riding canter transitions on straight lines. When you learn to canter you do it coming out of a corner, and it becomes ingrained into us that all canters should be on a curve. Yes it obviously helps to get the correct lead, so is useful for green horses or riders, and it usually means the horse is less likely to run into canter.
To begin riding canter transitions first make sure that your horse understands which leg he should be going on, in accordance to your aids. The leg aids should be clear and the response instant.
Next, revise your trot to make sure that you are riding your horse straight down the long sides and that he feels balanced in a straight line, and even between left and right rein.
I did this with a couple of horses I was schooling today, and it was to ensure that the canter was straight for both of them. The younger horse didn’t fully understand initially so I began with riding the canter transition as I exited the corner onto the long side, to give him a clue as to what I wanted. So when first introducing these straight line transitions ride them immediately out of the corner, until your horse understands. When he goes into canter immediately from the outside leg coming back and onto the correct lead the majority of the time, you can begin to move the location of the canter transition.
This exercise really tests your horses understanding of the aids, and his balance and suppleness. The transitions should begin to feel that they initiate from the hindquarters and be more energetic. The canter should feel straighter and slightly more uphill, lesson on the forehand and more three time. The second horse I schooled with these transitions today tends to go quarters in into canter, so asking in a straight line and immediately riding straight helps set him up correctly for the corner so he is more balanced. When he is straighter his hind leg spends more time on the ground, giving a very balanced and powerful canter.
After riding the transitions large you can test them by doing them on the three quarter line, where you will see if your horse drifts out. If I’m not careful Otis will drift right in left canter transitions. Without the fenceline to guide them, horses are more likely to wobble until their balance improves. I sometimes use a pair of poles to help keep them straight in the transition.
I began doing this exercise with a client a few weeks ago and she had a complete mental block about asking for canter away from the corner. Once she’d done it however, she could feel the difference in the gait of her schoolmaster.
Finally, when straight transitions are performed easily away from the fence line, you can bring in diagonal lines. You want to ensure you are straight after the corner before asking for trot, focus on the letter at the next corner, and squeeze your horse down that line with your legs, keeping the tunnel clear with your reins. Trot until it feels rhythmical and straight, then clearly ask for the upwards transition, still focusing on your line. I tend to ride a different number of trot strides so that Otis is waiting for my signal and not anticipating, but it means I can correct his trot if necessary.
Then of course you can progress to direct transitions on straight lines, but you should immediately feel the improvement in the gait as soon as you start riding straight transitions and being aware of both of your straightness.